How US Founding Fathers’ racism is being used by modern-day Republicans – Henry McLeish

All too many members of Donald Trump’s party are encouraging white nationalists and stoking fear of minorities, writes Henry McLeish.
George Washington owned slaves but is said to have disliked the concept (Picture: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)George Washington owned slaves but is said to have disliked the concept (Picture: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
George Washington owned slaves but is said to have disliked the concept (Picture: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has a racial dimension! National Public Radio in Memphis Tennessee, reporting racial bias in coronavirus testing and treatment, said, “heat maps show screening is happening in the predominantly white and well-off suburbs, not in the majority-black low-income neighbourhoods”. People of colour continue to experience racial and ethnic health disparities.

Race is etched on every aspect of life and politics in America, and will play an important role in determining who becomes the 46th President of the United States.

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President Trump has certainly worsened race relations in the US, intensified racial hatred and stoked the flames of intolerance and disrespect towards African Americans, and now Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans.

But Trump has only exploited the hatred and ignorance, associated with the legacy of slavery, which reaches back over 400 years of history, and embraces, for some Americans, the idea that people of colour are, in some way, “lesser people”, less deserving, and representing a threat as the prospect of white Americans becoming a minority ‘in their own country’ by 2045 looms large.

Some US states – Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada – non-Hispanic white people are already a minority. Expert demographic projections confirm the changes that lie ahead.

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This has encouraged racists, and sadly swathes of the Republican Party, to redouble their anti-minority efforts and encourage white nationalists. For narrow political gain, Trump has given succour to extremists and fanned the flames of racial discrimination in America.

But the roots of racial hatred in the US run deep, the layers and layers of discontent keep building, and fuel the moral, political, social, economic and constitutional outrages which scar modern America.

In many ways, America is socially and culturally undeveloped, bitterly divided, unwilling to show compassion, remorse or guilt towards people whose skin colour is different, but who are still Americans. The idea of “separate but equal” lives on.

Racial reconciliation?

America can’t get over or come to terms with its greatest shame, slavery.

The first 19 Africans reached English colonies in Point Comfort, near James Town, Virginia in 1619, brought by English pirates who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship. From that point, over 12 million enslaved people became the legacy of slavery and have continued to influence US history and shape modern America.

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To date, this legacy has not been met with any sense of racial reconciliation or remorse, bearing in mind that the most able-bodied in Africa were stolen, ripped from their families, shipped in the most barbaric and inhuman manner and sold to willing buyers in a foreign country and then enslaved for life as property.

Indeed, the opposite has happened. African Americans are often resented, seen as a threat to white America and seldom praised for the contribution they and their ancestors have made to building the wealth of the country.

The deeply offensive classifying of African Americans as “lesser people” was the message, wrongly interpreted, from an early skirmish at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia around the “3/5ths amendment”. Virginia, a large slave-owning state, was keen to enhance its power in the newly created House of Representatives, and suggested slaves and white people should be regarded the same for deciding on the number of house members.

The issue of how to count slaves split the delegates and the Virginia plan was rejected. Northern states regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. The Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted with Whites.

Delegates devised a compromise in the form of a “3/5ths amendment”, so each black person was counted as three-fifths of a white one in determining political representation in the new House of Representatives! Time has distorted the truth and built something hugely destructive into the folklore of slavery.

‘Freed for ever’

The idea of a white America steeped in superiority is increasingly imbedded in the psyche of a nation that will not face up to hard truths. The Founding Fathers built white dominance into the fabric and laws of the nation that proclaimed to believe in freedom and liberty. It is little wonder that America is still struggling with its roots and the “original sin of slavery”.

All men are equal, as asserted the Declaration of Independence. But America was founded on slaves. The abstract principle of equality, for people like Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner like many of the Founding Fathers, was always conceived against the reality of searing inequality in their own lives.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in the great flourish of debate on the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, slavery was just ignored. To date this represents a stain on the achievements of modern America which allows the enemies of racial harmony and integration to seek comfort in history and in the reverence and respect given to the Founding Fathers.

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Despite the preliminary emancipation proclamation in 1862 by President Lincoln, which declared slaves were “freed for ever”, the inhumanity of the Jim Crow era in the early 20th century, the KKK and lynching, the inspiring work of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the ground-breaking reforms of President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, there are those who aim to keep the race issue in the forefront of cultural and political debate.

The 13th, 14the and 15th Amendments to the Constitution introduced the abolition of slavery, full citizenship and the right to vote for black men. But these changes took place nearly a century after the US Constitution was ratified in 1788.

Key election battleground

Race will play a defining, if not conclusive, role, in deciding who runs America in what is likely to be a closely fought presidential election in November.

But the debate is no longer confined to African Americans, as Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans are classed by some as “people of difference”.

Republican legislatures, governors and the President will block minority advances because of the declining numbers supporting the Republican party, their overwhelmingly white constituencies, and their inability or unwillingness to embrace policies that speak to a diverse nation.

Between now and November their strategy will be to suppress the votes of minorities, by trying to exclude millions of Americans from the polling stations and persuade white Americans to believe they are about to be ‘overwhelmed’.

For the Democratic party, the battle is not only to retain the spectacular share of the minority vote they already have, but to increase the turnout of that vote. Beating Trump, whose base is remarkably solid and white, depends on this.

Next time, race and health inequalities, the impact of race on the politics of US voters, how race influenced the presidential election in 2016, what impact will it have in 2020 and how will the great ongoing voter suppression scandal in America affect the outcome.

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